Response Magazine | Seattle Life

Anthropology professor Ken Tollefson linked theology and culture

Professor Emeritus of Anthropology Ken Tollefson died Nov. 20, 2018, following a life committed to serving indigenous people of the Pacific Northwest and Alaska and mentoring colleagues and students.

Ken TollefsonTollefson’s academic degrees included a master of divinity and a doctorate in anthropology. He intertwined these interests throughout his life. 

Longtime colleague and Paul T. Walls Professor of Scripture and Wesleyan Studies Rob Wall spoke at Tollefson’s memorial, remembering his “restless excitement of discovery” as he encountered biblical texts from the perspective of a “skilled anthropologist reading God’s word in the company of the Holy Spirit.” 

In 1965, Tollefson and his family joined Seattle Pacific College, where he worked as an anthropology professor and the residence life coordinator for Hill Hall men.

He continued as a Seattle Pacific professor for more than 30 years and assisted the class of 1971 in acquiring their class gift, a Tlingit-carved traditional story pole that now sits behind Alexander Hall.

Dissertation research took Tollefson to Angoon, a remote island village in Southeast Alaska.  There, the Tlingit tribe adopted him into the Raven clan and gave him the name Hiyash. Tollefson was also given full membership of the Snoqualmie and Duwamish tribes in gratitude for his advocacy for the tribes’ federal recognition and protection of their aboriginal sites, like naming Snoqualmie Falls as a historic site.

At SPU’s 1984 Weter Award lecture, Tollefson analyzed the role of Nehemiah in bringing about cultural change. He later worked with Hebrew scholar H.G.M. Williamson to publish a journal article titled “Nehemiah as Cultural Revitalization: An Anthropological Perspective.” Universities now use the article to train missionaries. 

Tollefson was a man of wit, kindness, and humility. Fellow anthropologist and friend Jay Miller wrote in the book Tribal Trio of the Northwest Coast (CreateSpace, 2015) that Tollefson made the world “a much better place in the service of God and goodness.”

Tollefson was predeceased by his wife of 61 years, Ruth, and is survived by two daughters: Susan Tollefson Siverson ’81, budget manager for SPU’s School of Education, and Kenda Tollefson Gatlin ’88, University registrar. His six grandchildren also attended SPU. 

By Martin Abbott, Kenda Gatlin, and Mícheál Roe

Get Response magazine
Subscribe to SPU's Response magazine, and discover how people in our community are impacting the world for good — and you can too!
Subscribe Now